Did you ever feel that to make a difference you needed to do something extraordinary?
That you would need a special kind of superpower not available to ordinary people?
Or that ordinary people are rarely extraordinary compared to people like Elvis, Nelson Mandela or Annie Lennox?
Thinking we cannot make a difference without doing something magnificent can often blind us to the many ordinary people who paved the way for what we take for granted in an “enlightened world”.
This month I have been looking up extraordinary Irish female history makers in preparation for a new course for the autumn and one of the most extraordinary women I have come across (and there are many!) is one Albert D. J. Cashier, who was born Jennie Irene Hodgers, on December 25th, 1843, in Clogherhead, Co. Louth.
As a young emigrant, Jennie adopted a male persona somewhere between leaving Ireland and arriving in America. In August 1862, Cashier, as Jennie was then known, enlisted in the Union army and was commended for bravery in combat in battles in Louisiana, Tennessee and Missouri.
Jennie, as Albert, was one of several hundred women fighting as male during the Civil War. Whether it was a gender issue, or one of accessing a career with pay and opportunities, it cannot have been easy to maintain a female physical gender undetected but Albert made up in bravery what he was short of in stature.
After a remarkable term of service, Albert mustered out of the army and continued to work and live identifying as male, receiving a military pension for service to the army during the war after which he settled and worked as general handyman in Saunemin, Illinois. Although some close friends knew his physical gender, it was not until a car accident in 1911 that it became public knowledge and his secret became a sensation in the press for the next few years.
The real tragedy was to be what happened when, despite the ardent support of his fellow soldiers and veterans, Albert was declared insane, and forced to live in Watertown State Hospital.
C.W. Ives who was a comrade during the war was to recount his dismay when he met the older Cashier saying “I left Cashier a fearless boy of 22…when I went to Watertown, I found… a frail woman of 70, broken because, on discovery, she was compelled to put on skirts”.
This extraordinary person was forced to become “ordinary”, despite displaying amazing courage, tenacity and service. And in the forcing of the “norm”, Albert lost the will to live and in 1915, Cashier died and was buried with full military honours and was buried in Saunemin, where he had settled and made a life in his later years.
How does an ordinary girl, born into a small fishing village in Ireland, illiterate and impoverished, find the courage and determination to create a new persona, a new identity, a new life of service and carve herself a role in the formation of the United States of America?
What did Jennie Hodgers tap into to create this amazing lifestory that inspired so many women to take up arms and become soldiers?
Was Albert always afraid of being discovered?
Sometimes we have to acknowledge that fear is not going to go away, so we have to do things whilst still being afraid.
But what if Albert Cashier just took the fear and ran with it, then learned to live with it but NOT be ruled by it, and in so doing, created an life more authentic than one married with several children, bound by domesticity and servitude at home, when the real calling was to a life of adventure?
What if Jennie/Albert was just an ordinary person who mustered up the courage to live a life that seems extraordinary to us, yet to many veterans who went on to work at manual labour after the war, it was an ordinary life, lived out in peacetime earning a living without a fanfare.
If you could muster up the courage to do ONE THING this week that you have always wanted to do, what would that be?
It may not be as adventurous as Jennie Hodgers or Albert Cashier stowing aboard a ship and going to war, but what if we could feel the fear and do it anyway?
Would that be a nod of thanks to the amazing women that went before us, creating new paradigms and frontiers so our lives are less restricted?
I am guessing that no matter what our “one thing” might be, we will not be in danger of being shot by a musket or blown up by a canon, and it may involve something far more genteel like a red face if we ask for a raise, or the risk of a rejection if we submit a piece of writing to a competition.
So what about thinking this week about people like Albert Cashier and asking yourself “If they can do that? how will I do this? ……see what happens 🙂